Research on Business and the Environment Has Come a Long Way

Published May 4, 2009

2015-02-18 15:49:03

Research in the area of Business and the Environment (B&E) has come a long way in the nearly twenty years I have been at it. It is hard to believe, but this was a very new area when I first started my PhD in the early 1990s. And in my pursuit of doctoral advisors, more than a few professors declined, saying that they would like to study the topic but wanted to wait until they were more established and/or tenured before they took it on. At that time, the literature in this area was viewed as too value-laden and advocacy oriented. In short, it was seen as lacking rigor, and therefore was a risky path to academic success. Even after graduation and a post-doc, I was declined for a position at a top-tier business school with the explanation that they really liked my work on institutional theory but felt I was too focused on the environment. It was still seen as an advocacy domain rather than an empirical research domain. Today, I would like to believe things are different. Do you agree? Are programs like ARCS a sign that B&E research has gained status? Has research on B&E attained a maturity and respect that deem it a low-risk track toward success in the academic world? I think this question is important, not only for our individual careers, but also for both the future of business school research, and for the broader societal debate over issues such as climate change.

On the first count, B&E has the potential to infuse business research with a much needed injection of relevance. Today there is a growing debate over “rigor and relevance” in management research. Respected scholars like Warren Bennis, Sumatra Ghoshal, Don Hambrick, Rakesh Khurana, Henry Mintzberg, Jeff Pfeffer, Dick Schmalensee, Mike Tushman, Andy Van de Ven and others have begun to ask whether business schools are in a crisis: whether they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to managers, publishing in journals managers don’t read, asking questions they don’t care about and using a language they don’t understand. Even as I write this essay, Harvard Business Publishing is hosting a very active web dialogue on “How to Fix Business Schools”: http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/how-to-fix-business-schools/ But research on B&E can help to fix at least part of the problem they are discussing, enhancing the relevance and value of business school research. Research in areas like organizational behavior, strategy, business economics, operations, finance, accounting, marketing and others can themselves be enhanced through attention to issues of contemporary criticality. These also include the mortgage crisis, corporate accounting scandals, high-profile bankruptcies, skyrocketing health care costs, the increasing power of multi-nationals, growing public resentment and distrust of business, poverty and more.

On the second count, academic research on B&E can bring much needed rigor to the societal and political debates around issues like climate change (provided it does not stay within the confines of the ivory tower). At present we seem to be living in an area where green is everywhere. Green jobs, green tech, green buildings, green economy. But the issue has become both muddled and politicized. It creates for some an air of irrational exuberance- “green” will solve all of our economic problems. And for others, it creates a knee-jerk pessimism at what is seen as a left leaning agenda that is devoid of clear headed market logic- “green” will destroy the economy. We have become stuck in ridiculous extremes of the debate, much like abortion and gun control; and as long as debate stays at these polls, clarity will elude us. But academic scholarship can help bring us out of this polarization. There is a screaming need for solid analysis on the vast array of policy interventions that have begun and will begin, including carbon tax, cap-and-trade, renewable portfolio standards, feed-in-tariffs, net metering, subsidies, infrastructure improvements (i.e. national grid, smart grid, high-speed rail, public transportation, home weatherization and nuclear waste disposal), government procurement policies, R&D funding, building, appliance and auto standards, land use policy and product labeling. All of these issues need sound, solid, objective and rigorous analysis of their business and market implications; analysis that academic scholars can provide.

Let me ask you, Do we have an opportunity before us? Donella Meadows and her co-authors finished their book, Beyond the Limits to Growth with this sentiment: “In a society that systematically develops in people their individualism, their competitiveness, and their cynicism, the pessimists are in the vast majority. That pessimism is the single greatest problem of the current social system, we think, and the deepest cause of unsustainability.” In my view, one powerful tool for breaking down pessimism is knowledge. And that is what we, as scholars, can bring to the conversation.

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